He Didn't "Retire"

The story of Roberto Garcia's

termination from CC

by Han Sayles

If there is no struggle, there is no progress.
— Fredrick Douglass

Over dinner last month, Roberto Garcia, Colorado College’s former Director of Admissions, told me how he lost everything. This loss wasn’t a long time coming, or even mildly expected. Garcia contends that during his 25 years at CC he received consistently strong performance reviews, maintained hundreds of amicable colleagues on campus and across the country, and played a key role in selecting the current incoming class, which President Jill Tiefenthaher referred to as the “most selective and diverse” in our campus’ history. All of this abruptly ended when Garcia was terminated from CC on April 4, 2014. It marked the end of his service to the College and the beginning of his fraught journey for justice. 

The loss of Garcia’s position devastated him; he devoted his life to this institution, his wife has been working at our library for 19 years as the Preservation Specialist and his son is a CC graduate. The ties that bind him to CC permeate every aspect of his life and, until this year, those bonds were celebrated. Now, his journey has led him to the booth across from me where he sat next to his wife, LaVerne Garcia, to explain the events that led to his termination. In a matter of months, he explained, he went from being a valued staff member who worked tirelessly for the College, to hiring an attorney with the intent of filing an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaint against the College for discriminatory practices. “I want people to know the truth, that’s why I’m sitting here today—it’s not what everyone thinks,” Garcia said. 

Garcia first came to CC after he was recruited from his previous position in the Princeton admission office by a member of the Board of Trustees. His initial position was as the Minority Student Recruiting Coordinator in 1989, a role that focused solely on increasing student diversity at CC. In the first year, he decided to commit himself to the institution for life: “I planned on retiring there,” Garcia remarked. His trajectory was a stable incline; he served as Assistant Director, Senior Assistant Director, Associate Director of Admissions and then, in 2005, appointed by the president, the Director of Admissions. Throughout Garcia’s time at the College, he was a passionate advocate for diversity issues and his colleagues remember him well for his inclusive vision. 

Claire Garcia (no relation to Roberto), Professor of English and Director of Race and Ethnic Studies, recalled her experience with Garcia’s work. “He has been someone who has been very involved in diversity issues, not just on CC’s campus, but also in the broader community. He has worked with my husband [Lieutenant Governor Garcia of Colorado] in higher education issues like HACU, The Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, to increase access to higher education for Hispanic students. He is a person of absolute integrity and commitment to the College,” she said. Over the years, he maintained strong personal and professional connections with everyone he met. 

His commitment to diversity on campus was paralleled by a professional demeanor and intense work ethic. Victoria Hufschmidt, CC alum ’11 and a previous Admissions Officer for the past three years, commented on the experience of having Garcia as a boss: “At that time, he was the Director of Admission, and a great one to say the least. He became a great mentor to me over the years. Roberto is one of the most selfless, giving, hardworking people I know and I feel so privileged to have worked with him. [He] was always the first person in the office and the last person to leave. [His] character is truly one in a million and I have never had a colleague that was truly invested in not only his job, but making sure everybody else was happy and content in their job.” 

Another colleague of his in the Admissions Office, who wishes to remain anonymous, explained, “He was always very professional and very human. He was serious about doing the work but also about recognizing the people behind the work. I really admired and appreciated that. He was extremely meticulous about doing his job well, so he set the bar high for what the ideal worker looks like.” 

May Penuela, former Assistant Director of Admission from 1995-1999 and current Assistant Director of the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program at the University of Colorado Boulder, worked closely with Garcia during her time at CC. “Hundreds of students spanning generations benefited from his contributions to policy and best practices in CC’s office of admission.  He created a network of community leaders, school counselors and college access educators in his outreach work that are vital to CC’s pipeline to democratize the College for 25 years.  He developed CC as a viable institution that students from the southwest, major urban centers across the country and rural Colorado would even consider to attend college. Most inspiring throughout his 25-year career at CC, Roberto never comprised a student’s human dignity,” Penuela said. 

Furthermore, Garcia remarked on his own career, “In the 25 years that I have been at CC, I have never received an unsatisfactory performance review. Up until the end, I had 25 years of strong performance and accolades, documented. In fact, last year I received a pay increase that was close to meritorious pay,” Garcia said. “It was the same year I was told that my performance was unsatisfactory...” All in all, Garcia’s reputation precedes him; every staff, alumni and faculty member I have spoken with has been shocked that he was gone and even more startled that they had received no news of his termination. An anonymous admissions office colleague said, “It made no sense. To me, he was everything I believed in at CC.” Garcia knew that people would be asking, why? But no one knows where to direct those questions, which might very well be the very reason behind the College’s decision to remain mute. 

But Garcia is determined to illuminate what happened, which is why he is filing an EEOC complaint, a document that will be a public record, accessible to anyone who may ask about the people involved. According to its mission statement, “EEOC is responsible for enforcing federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against an employee. It is also illegal to discriminate against a person because the person complained about discrimination, filed a charge of discrimination or participated in an employment discrimination investigation or lawsuit.” 

Garcia says his termination was largely, if not entirely, due to the fact that he was a whistle blower after a racist incident occurred between two staff members from the admissions office on Jan. 12, 2013.  He explained that he heard about the incident several months after it occurred, directly from one of the staff members involved. This happened when two Admissions Office staff members were at an off-campus location conducting prospective students interviews. One of the staff members asked if his/her next appointment had arrived and the other responded, “That might be her over there but I don’t know because all Asians look alike.” The staff member who had made the inquiry was offended and horrified that the student might have overheard the comment. He/she proceeded to tell his/her direct supervisor who then, instead of intervening, directed him/her to talk to the person who had made the racist remark in the first place. Garcia did not find out about the incident from his staff until April 8, 2013. Once he did, he vehemently protested for the staff member to receive sensitivity training and recommended to his supervisor that he/she should not receive an “excellent performance” rating in the yearly evaluation. 

On May 15, 2013, Garcia found out, regardless of his protest, that his supervisor had still given this particular staff member an “excellent performance” review, which put them up for a promotion. He was incensed that this person had not been reprimanded, despite their troubling behavior and that the incident hadn’t been handled properly in the first place. “I said, ‘Why was I not told about it?’ It’s not just inappropriate or even offensive—it’s a crime. It is against the law to create a hostile work environment based on race and that racist statement is creating a hostile environment for that staff member.” 

Garcia is correct; Title VII of the Federal Antidiscrimination Laws prohibits discrimination in the work place based on “race, color, religion, sex or national origin.” It extends to protect employees who are discriminated against by fellow employees and covers the impacts that a racial slur or remark might have on another person’s performance in the work place, making it effectively illegal to discriminate in any manner. Another anonymous Admissions Office staff member, confirmed that this person had a history of remarks such as this, making it hard for them to work in the same environment. “Several employees in the office also felt that [this person] would say really inappropriate and offensive things when it came to students [they] didn’t like. I found it difficult to respect [them].” Claire Garcia added, “I’m astonished that racism in the work place would be handled so lightly in the community, especially given the College’s new commitment to diversity and inclusion.”

After Roberto Garcia learned about the review, he approached his supervisor once again and complained verbally and formally in an email exchange about the decision he called “unbelievable.” 

“That’s when the tables turned,” Garcia recalled as he shifted at our dining table, gazing at me with renewed determination. Prior to this incident, Garcia says he had been the victim of blatant racism in the Admissions Office. “I’ve learned how to deal with it and I’ve learned when you fight those battles and when you leave it alone, but this was different. I was angry. I went to my higher-ups and said, ‘We’re senior leaders at the College and we cannot accept this kind of behavior.’ To me, that person had a history of making statements along these lines.” He continued, “I sent an email complaining about that incident, and it’s at that point that life became miserable for me.” 

After complaining to his superiors again, Garcia claims he became the victim of reprehensible treatment from his primary superior. He felt he was undermined at every occasion and that this was retaliation for his outspokenness and conviction on the topic. Then, on Jan. 22, his superior handed him a document with “8 hours of unsolicited complaints” against him. This person claimed that the complaints came from 12 separate staff members in an 8 hour period, all saying Garcia made it difficult to work in the Admissions Office. Garcia contends that the complaints were anonymous and did not contain his name, and that they dealt largely with middle management issues. 

At a public meeting held in February 2014, Garcia sought to address the issue, so he asked his Associate Directors if they felt they couldn’t do their job because of him; each associate responded “no.” He said he realized then that his superior was building a case against him based on lies, although he did not suspect it would lead to his eventual termination. When I prompted my anonymous source to reveal any tensions in the office that might have led to these complaints, this person seemed surprised: “I truly don’t know many people in the office who would complain about him. Of course every office has their problems, there are people in the office who he would reprimand if they were behaving inappropriately, so I could see how one person might complain. But it’s unfair to say one person complaining is grounds to represent everyone.” 

Garcia believed the document was troublesome, but he would never have suspected what came next. On March 14, 2014 Garcia’s supervisor told him that he had been in “deep conversations” with the highest supervisors at the school and that they had determined he was to be demoted from his position based on two reasons. Two years of poor performance, and a document composed of narratives from the “8 hours of unsolicited complaints” against him. 

Garcia’s first response was that his last two years of performance evaluations had been marked “strong performance” by the very person who was telling him this information. He then responded that his superior had deliberately sought these complaints against him to get him demoted.  “The complaints were middle management issues, with nothing about me directly,” Garcia said. Regardless of his protests, his superior told him he was being demoted to Associate Director of Admissions, and that the College would need to know if he would accept the offer of demotion by the following Monday, March 17. What’s more, the position of Associate Director was not guaranteed as it was a position he would still have to apply for. Garcia left the office baffled. “They fabricated lies about me, despite the fact there was no empirical evidence,” he said bluntly, 

Garcia glances at his wife, LaVerne, who has worked at the College for 19 years in the library, before continuing: “That weekend we decided together, no, we’re not going to accept that. It’s based on lies, and surely we can appeal to someone else who is higher up.” 

Instead of continuing to communicate with his superior further, Garcia sought HR support the following week. They confirmed that he had been given “strong performance” reviews by the administration but they told him it was no longer an option to be Director of Admissions. When Garcia inquired as to the true reasons for his demotion, the HR person cited that CC is an “At-Will” employer and that the College did not need justification because Garcia is an “At-Will” employee. “At-Will” is the state that all Coloradans are subject to since we live in a right-to-work state, so employers do not need legitimate reasons to fire an employee at any given time.

 He requested another appointment to follow up with the HR representative and another senior administrator. At this meeting on April 4, 2014 both representatives told Garcia there was no place at him for the College anymore. They told him that the relationship between him and his supervisor was too fractured, nothing could be done to reinstate his previous position, and they advised him to create an “exit strategy.” Garcia recalled how, when he continued to question the decision, they cited his status as an “At-Will” employee. “They kept telling me, ‘We don’t need reasons for firing you, we don’t need any of that,’” Garcia said. “That’s true, but when they make up lies about why they’re firing me—that is impermissible. It is breaking the law.” He denied any compensation as part of an exit package, which would have also served as a non-disclosure agreement, because he believed he had been wronged. He let the two administrators know then that he would be seeking an attorney to pursue the case further. 

In May 2014, he also filed an internal complaint against the parties he thought were at fault in the initial incident and the retaliation he had experienced. Seven days after he filed his complaint, he was put on administrative leave. Garcia paused at this point in the story and looked softly at his wife once again, who clutched a napkin to wipe away tears. “I was called into the office and told by my supervisor that I was going to be put on paid leave and then terminated, effective immediately. I was told that moment to turn in all my CC property, keys to the building, electronics and to leave immediately. My supervisor said, ‘You are on administrative leave, you cannot come back to the office.’” Garcia was shocked and asked why but was told, “it has been decided.” He wasn’t allowed to retrieve his computer, files from his offices or any property that belonged to the College. He was then escorted by a Human Resources staff member from his supervisor’s office to his own office and told, “Just get your keys, right now, you’re not allowed to take anything with you.” 

Garcia recalled the shameful walk back to his office, with an escort by his side, and the eyes of imploring colleagues following his back all the way out of the building. “I think the most egregious thing in this instance is that they vilified me. They purposefully made it look like I was a threat to the community.” 

Claire Garcia weighed in: “I’ll speak frankly: From a faculty perspective, in the last two years I have seen several cases on the staff and administration side where people just suddenly disappear. You call to talk to the person [in question] and you’re just told that the person is gone. Later you’ll hear it wasn’t a happy parting. Roberto is at least the 6th or 7th person I know of in the past two years who has disappeared like this. I worry that maybe Roberto’s termination is part of a new way of doing things.”  She acknowledged that she did not know both sides of the story but, regardless, she felt that Garcia, after his decades of commitment, deserved basic respect in his departure. 

An anonymous colleague in the Admissions Office commented on the moment when Garcia was escorted out of the building: “My colleagues are traumatized by it because no one knew what was happening. It’s awkward when something happens and you don’t know why. It builds fear because you think, Am I going to get fired tomorrow? I think especially for the amount of years and effort and passion Roberto devoted to the College, it really shocked me professionally that this happened. I wish there was a more graceful way to leave.” 

While reflecting on the situation, Garcia said, “That’s how you would treat a criminal. That is how you treat a staff member or student who assaults someone else.” Even if the parting was unhappy, he felt he had been robbed of a dignified exit and purposefully disrespected. He speculated that the College didn’t want him to have access to his documents that he could have used to support his case­—even his email account was blocked. Garcia believes that his experience is the result of this administration’s intentions to terminate employees swiftly, and brutally. He hypothesized their strategy is part of a larger playbook of tools that alienate and disempower the terminated employee so they won’t return to ask questions, all while the community is kept in the dark. 

On the administrative side, when I prompted President Jill Tiefenthaler to comment about Garcia’s termination, or the termination process, our interview lasted approximately four minutes. “I can’t comment on any specific personal issues, it’s not appropriate or fair or professional for anyone else. It’s a policy, a common policy for any institution around personal issues,” Tiefenthaler said.

Yes, it might be a common policy, but the question remains if that should be our policy. What’s more, this isn’t the first time this issue has emerged. Three years ago there was another, extremely similar, article published in Cipher about the sudden and seemingly irrational firing of long-time employee Alan Davis. The same questions posed emerge now, still unanswered. At the time, Jonathan Lee, previous chair of the FEC, said after a meeting with President Dick Celeste about Davis’ firing and the policies for termination, “We [the faculty] believe the College has reasonable policies, but I don’t think we know exactly what they are.” Perhaps now, three years later, it’s time to reopen those doors. The question is about procedure as much as it is about respect. To the extent that we pride ourselves as a cohesive community, it’s completely contrary that members of our community are treated as disposable after 25 years of service. 

Back at the dinner table, LaVerne speaks through her tears in a clear, defiant voice, “The real deception on their part started surfacing when they began to lie about Roberto’s ‘retirement.’ My coworkers came up to me because they had heard he had retired and they wanted to know when his party was... ” 

When Garcia went to Human Resources to ask about what people thought had happened, a sympathetic employee told him she had been instructed to tell people he was “retired” if asked. On top of the shame of being terminated, Garcia and his wife have been fielding questions about his retirement party because no plans have been made to celebrate the work he has done for the College. “What happened to me was such a brutal treatment that the last thing they wanted to do was give me a farewell and acknowledge my service,” Garcia said. He believes that it is purposeful that no one knows about what happened to him because it forces people to assume the worst, eliminating the need to hear the true story. 

An anonymous admissions colleague said, “I feel weird about it because I’m in the field of admissions­—I see people at conferences who ask about Roberto and I have no idea what to say. He is so highly respected in this profession, people tell me ‘I love Colorado College because of Roberto, how is he?’ and I have to tell them he’s not at CC and I don’t know why. It creates a very bad image for Colorado College.” 

A different anonymous staff member, who has been with the College for many years, shared their deep frustration regarding Garcia’s situation: “It has hurt me to the core to see this mistreatment and shook my faith in the judgment of the administration to treat employees fairly.  It is ironic that the College would fire someone so loyal, a person of color himself, who has, over the years, helped recruit and mentor so many students of color.  There was wrong done by the College. Roberto, and all of us, deserve much better.”

Because of the treatment he has received throughout the process, Garcia is determined to pursue his EEOC case as far as it will go: “The College knows it is a Goliath in terms of resources [in comparison to an employee]. Even if I have to spend my entire retirement trying to fight this, I have to make sure that I fight this because I believe that if this had happened to me, it has happened to others before me. It will happen to others after me.”

In Garcia’s eyes, he is fighting for his reputation and his integrity. He is also transparent about what he hopes his case will accomplish: He wants to make sure this doesn’t happen to other staff members at CC. It is surprising that despite all he’s been through, Garcia is still committed to improving CC. Towards the end of our conversation, Garcia shook his head, saying, “They wronged me, they just threw me out like the daily trash.” However, despite his pain, Garcia is endeavoring to make sure that his story isn’t replicated, that this article needn’t be written for the third time and that the same actors aren’t able to treat employees like cogs in a machine. 

Garcia can’t be the only one to bring these questions to the administration. Alumni, staff, faculty and students have a right and a responsibility to demand an explanation for the way Garcia was treated. Garcia’s termination is a part of a pattern of institutional behavior where CC acts more like a corporation than a College community. This should be our fundamental concern: We must demand that bureaucracy leave space for humanity. 

Because the school never offered to honor Garcia’s work, a group of alumni from the Colorado College Alumni and Students of Color Association took it upon themselves to have an informal reception at a professor’s house before homecoming weekend. They wanted to break bread together, remember Garcia’s services and honor him the best way they could: by reminding him that the connections he made at CC and the lives he changed go far beyond the structural confines of the institution. One alumna, Christine Suina ’95, from Cochiti Pueblo, stood up after everyone had settled in and began to address Garcia. She thanked him for his commitment to recruiting and retaining students, especially students of color. She remembered Garcia being present when her family came to look at the campus and we all laughed with her as she recalled memories they had together. But the room went completely still as Suina choked up and finished her speech. “Roberto has done amazing work for so many generations of students, I hope CC knows decisions they make impact future generations to come. It is a deep loss.” She paused to wipe away tears and clear her throat, “But thank you, Roberto, for making CC our home.”